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  • Steve Sucato

A Q & A with 'Limit (Less)' Composer Theron Brown

By Steve Sucato

Throughout its history, GroundWorks DanceTheater has been heavily invested in artistic collaboration. In celebration of the award-winning, nationally recognized dance company’s milestone 25th Anniversary, GroundWorks is continuing that legacy of collaboration by teaming up with Akron-based musician/composer Theron Brown for the evening-length work, Limit (Less), the latest project in its boundary-pushing nextSPACE Series.

A momentous music and dance production unlike any GroundWorks has presented before, Limit (Less) challenges existing assumptions about the typical audience performance experience. The theme of the Limit (Less) is not defined by physical, emotional, political, systemic, or circumstantial narratives but is a collective expression of the idea of creativity without bounds.

 Set to original music composed by Brown and performed live by the Theron Brown Trio, Limit (Less) is choreographed and performed by GroundWorks’ dancers as part of the company’s ongoing ChoreoLab series—a series devoted to fostering the choreographic talents of GroundWorks dancers.

For Brown, the production is a chance for him to expand the limits of his own artistic expression. 

Originally from Zanesville, Ohio, Brown's music education includes a bachelor’s degree in jazz and a master’s degree in piano performance from the University of Akron. He has performed globally, appearing with The Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, The Jazz Heritage Orchestra, The Huntertones (formerly DW6), musicians Dan Wilson, Sean Jones, and many others. He is the program coordinator for Curated Storefront’s Artist Residency Program at The LeBron James Family Foundation’s I Promise School in Akron. He is an educator for the interactive piano learning app Playground Sessions. Theron is the founder and artistic director of the Rubber City Jazz & Blues Festival and is a full-time professor in the University of Akron's jazz program. Brown had the good fortune to be cast as a young Herbie Hancock in the 2016 film Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle.

I spoke recently with Brown about his involvement in Limit (Less).

What about collaborating with GroundWorks on this production intrigued you?

I have been conversing with David (Shimotakahara) about working together for a while. I have also been intrigued by dance from some work I have done in the past with theaters and other productions. Within the last year, I have realized how much good music makes people want to dance and how dance inspires music. Part of why I wanted to do this project is to learn a new artistic language and push myself musically and artistically. 

What was your musical approach to the theme of Limit (Less)?

I have been known as a jazz musician who also plays gospel. That can put you in a box. I like to compose and do other things. With this production, I am breaking out of my box and taking some chances. When you work with different artists, they bring different things out of you and choices that you would not usually make, which can get you out of your comfort zone. Being limited to doing only what you do can be detrimental to your soul, creativity, and your career. It is important to collaborate with other people. Doing that truly has no limits. 

What was the process of working with GroundWorks dancers on the music soundtrack like?  

This was the part I really wanted to dive into, putting in their hands the collaboration on music. What rhythms are they hearing? Everyone comes from different backgrounds, experiences, places, and eras regarding what you take in culturally. For this to work as a true collaboration, you have to let them into your world and trust that because they are artists, too. I feel music and dance, in some ways, share the same language. In the studio, when we were improvising together, sometimes the music would dictate the dance and sometimes vice versa.

Did the dancers come to you with ideas for the music?

When we first got to know each other, the dancers would bring in music they liked. I can get to know a person through their musical tastes. I think that is what made this an easy process: our understanding that, yeah, we create together, and if you like it or don’t like it, it’s cool. 

How do you feel these different dance and music sections came together?

The great thing about this is that the dancers all had their own ideas for their sections, but then we were able to weave them together. Different imagery and motifs resurface throughout the piece and keep it connected. You will hear that in the music as well; it’s like a gumbo full of robust flavors. 

How are you translating the music to the other members of the Theron Brown Trio? 

That’s actually the easy part. I have been playing with them since 2014. They are both graduates of Oberlin College’s Musical Studies Program and they have such high musicality that they see what is happening in the soundtrack. The other exciting thing is that the dancers and I wrote the music to be fluid enough to have sections for them to improvise. 

What have GroundWorks dancers been like as collaborators in this process?

They are the most beautiful, loving, and gracious people to work with. The part I can’t get over is how quickly they learn and retain their dance movement. They can go away and work other dance works and come back and the movement for this piece is still there in their bodies. What’s my dance on the piano, and how can I retain it as they do, what’s that trick? I feel like that is their superpower.

GroundWorks DanceTheater and the Theron Brown Trio present Limit (Less), 2 p.m., Saturday, March 16, House Three Thirty by The Lebron James Family Foundation, 532 W Market Street, Akron, OH, and 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 22 and Saturday, March 23, POMP PARTIES at Twist Drill Building, 4700 Lakeside Ave, 2nd floor, Cleveland, OH. Tickets $10-25.

The March 16 performance of Limit (Less) at House Three Thirty by The Lebron James Family Foundation was made possible through Curated Storefront Akron.

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